Learn the Interesting History of Thomas the Tank Engine

We all love the nostalgia and innocence of the 50s cartoons and beyond. Nevertheless, as we age, we can’t help but wonder what kind of shows we were really watching as kids. Back then, we never really cared about the stuff beyond the artistic display and comical turns of events in the show.

Thanks to video platforms like YouTube, the shows we used to love were somehow preserved and re-uploaded for public consumption. People can now relive the childhood fun that certain cartoon characters like Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Thomas and Friends brought to us. People can now comment on how these cartoon series contain sinister innuendos that some say genuinely ‘ruined’ our childhood.

We can all agree that Thomas the Tank Engine is one of the classic cartoon characters that people still hold dear today. He even had a meme template of his own! The upbeat, easy-going, and adventurous engine surely captivated the hearts of the children, especially those who have autism, studies revealed.

Every cartoon character has its own origin story. Indeed, you have learned about the famous history of Mickey Mouse, or the birth of Bugs Bunny. But, have you thought about the history of our engine boy Thomas? Read on if you want to learn about the fascinating history of Thomas the Tank Engine. 

The Railway Series

Most of the classic cartoon TV shows and series derived their stories from comics and written literature. Thomas and Friends also credit its origin to the writings of an English Anglican priest Wilbert Vere Awdry. Being a railway enthusiast himself, Awdry used to tell young Christopher stories and rhymes about trains. At that time (circa 1942), the boy had caught measles and was isolated in a darkened room.

Fortunately, Wilbert Awdry immortalized the stories through books with encouragement from his wife, Margaret. In 1945, Rev. Awdry published the first book in The Railway Series, later followed by 25 more. He published the last of his writing in 1972. 

The book series captivated most readers in the United Kingdom. With the children’s book’s lore fully established, Christopher continued his father’s works somewhere between 1983 and 2011, adding sixteen more books to the series. All in all, the father-son duo ended with 42 books in total.

Thomas the Tank Engine

Thomas the Tank Engine themed JNR Class C11 train in Japan, 2014

Thomas is recognizable for its blue paint and number 1 marking on the side. The fictional characters in the series were primarily derived from prototypical engines. Thomas’ reference was the LB&SCR E2 Class.

Back in 1942, Wilber Awdry constructed a toy tank engine for his boy, later named Thomas. Although Thomas was the most remarkable character in the series, he was surprisingly not included in the first volume of the children’s book. When Christopher requested stories about Thomas, the character made his way to the series (1946) and became the most famous fictional locomotive in the world.

Throughout the series, Thomas was referred to as a “fussy little engine.” Despite his limitations and lack of experience as a ‘little engine,’ he longed for more big-man jobs. His character represented determination and a spirit of adventure. Adventures that sometimes led to troubles that were always resolved with the help of his friends.

Thomas & Friends: The TV Show

image of Thomas, a main character from Thomas and Friends

Not long after the last of the books were published, British writer and producer Britt Allcroft discovered the books and cut a deal to bring the railway stories to life. Hence, the TV show Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends was born. They late simplified it to Thomas & Friends.

The first series aired in October 1984 in the UK. Ringo Starr, a former Beatles drummer, and vocalist was the first storyteller of the show. In early 1989, Starr took on the character of the show’s Mr. Conductor, when the stories were featured as segments of the Shining Time Station.

The TV series was an instant and massive hit across the globe – gaining awards and recognition that led to a vast range of commercial spinoff products. Thomas and his plate-faced locomotive squad were an easy eye-catcher for young kids. Even the accompanying theme song was enough to lure the viewers into its magical train universe.

Bases of Thomas’ Aesthetics

Rev. Awdry himself recalled that Thomas’s character came from the wooden push-along toy he made for his son. But, the aesthetics of the character in the books and the shows were primarily based on models. During the second book in The Railway Series titled Thomas the Tank Engine, Awdry’s publisher hired an illustrator to work on the character’s aesthetics. Awdry himself selected an actual locomotive for the illustrator to explore for authenticity purposes. They end up designing a 0-6-0 E2 Class of the London, Brighten, and South Coast Railway.

In the TV series, Thomas’ looks were based on one of six E2 class locomotives but featuring an extension to the front of the water tanks. Unsatisfied, Awdry corrected the perpetuated artistic mistake using an ‘accident’ in Thomas Comes to Breakfast. The artist, Reginald Payne, was not credited much for the illustrations until the publication of Thomas the Tank Engine Man.

Thomas Appearance in Popular Culture

Thomas was indeed a fun character, to begin with. Because he is a locomotive, people see him as pretty special, unlike Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and other familiar animal characters. The appearances of the famed tank engine are vast and pretty prevalent in popular culture.

For instance, in 1988, Thomas was parodied as a drunkard who went “completely off the rails.” A British comedy show also referenced him in a spoof titled “Thomas the Tanked Up Engine.” In the 2015 Marvel movie, Ant-Man, Thomas appeared during the fight scene between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket.

Videogame players such as in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (in 2013), Sonic the Hedgehog, and Resident Evil 2 (in 2019) also did efforts referencing Thomas and other locomotive characters in clever, funny ways. Thomas also appears in almost any corner of social media as a meme template. The ones worth noting were the ‘disappointed Thomas’ and ‘angry Thomas.’